A friend of mine once told me, “Ignorance is being content with stupidity”. That it is easier to stay in the dark than it is to get up and switch on the light. Nowadays, we have more access to knowledge and information than our parents ever did, but we don’t act like it. Instead, we pick up a few stompies here and there, do a bit of creative recycling and pass them off as our own versions of “truth”. But it isn’t enough for us that we remain ignorant. We have to spread it – because misery loves company. So we talk on fast-forward, emphasise a few punch lines here and there, and leave everyone wowed and uninformed. And we get away with it too. By surrounding ourselves with groupies, who are too swooned by our smooth eloquent voices to question us, we become authorities on truths that don’t exist.
A few years ago, Metro Fm launched a campaign called Blacks Do Read in order to encourage black people to read books. What a wonderful initiative it was. In a time of Mtv, DStv and Facebook, (real) books have become somewhat redundant. People (black, white and other) would much rather hire the movie than take out the book, because the movie will only take an average of one and a half hours, while the book could take a few days. What people do not realise though, is that if they just watch the movie White Oleander, for example, they will never get to meet Olivia and will forever be robbed of how much of an influence she had on Astrid’s life. And if missing out on entire scenes and characters is not distressing enough, there are the entire stories that will be missed because their movies that have not been made yet. A Long Walk to Freedom, A Dream Deferred, and Over the Engeli Mountains… the list is endless. If not from books, how will people ever know the true stories behind these incredible leaders of our past? Steve Biko will continue to be misunderstood, with some continuing to use his name to justify their militancy or reverse racism, and they will never truly know what Black Consciousness means because the movie has not yet been made. (Cry Freedom is not a biographical film about Steve Biko. It is a story about Donald Woods and his relationship with Biko and South Africa as a whole) The point is though, that with so many options available at our disposal, there is absolutely no excuse for people not to read: libraries are free for those who cannot afford their own books; there are electronic books for those techno-addicts who won’t read anything that is not on a screen; and for those who just don’t know where to start, how but starting a book club with friends.
In addition to the wonderful world of books, we have access to one of the best sources of knowledge that exists out there: our elders. They are the ones who tell the stories that have been passed down from generation to generation and have not yet been put on paper. Our grandfathers and great uncles can trace our ancestry back to centuries our young minds cannot even begin to imagine and tell us the tales that history and school have not yet heard. Our mothers will tell us about the unsung heroines of the struggle who went from prison to prison looking for their husbands, women who were part of that vision in Lusaka and spent many nights on the streets of London while waiting for word that they could come home. Our grandmothers hold some of the best kept secrets out there and if we would only listen, they would share the old wives tales that have no western rooting but have been tried and tested for generations before us. From them, we will learn that when a new-born baby has a rash (ishimnca), the mother should crush a bark called umthombothi until it becomes a paste and rub the baby’s whole body with it to make the rash go away. And that the secrets of eternal youth are not found in Clinique bottles, but in simple things like calamine, spring water and sunlight soap – which would explain why we look nothing like our mothers did when they we our age. And the most amazing thing about these stories is that they are free and everywhere. From the bab’omdala next door to the tannie on the bus, they all have a story to share – if we would only turn our iPods off for a few minutes to listen. So there really is no excuse for being ignorant in this day and age.
Sadly though, ignorance can be found everywhere, most concerning of which is in the arts: delicately woven into colourful turbans, wrapped in A-line skirts and neatly packed into back-packs, ready to be battered on stages throughout the country. The arts have always been a love of mine (especially literary arts), but it has to be said: there are way too many ignorant artists out there. Many of them are so busy worrying about looking like artists that they forget to actually be artists, and everyone wants to be a poet but no one is willing to read a poem. There are just too many people who claim to be Biko-ists but have never even so much as opened I Write What I Like, or people who wear Che Guevara t-shirts but have no idea who he was! It sounds absurd, but there are actually “artists” who get on stage and speak of on an Africa they know nothing about. They profess a love for leaders whose names they picked up from a few conversations here and there, and convert to religions they don’t understand – there is more to being Rastafarians than growing dreads, rolling a joint and feel arie! And the saddest thing about all of this is that art is meant to be a reflection of society.
It really is not that difficult to find time to read a book, of any genre. Whether you are on a taxi on your way to work (or school), or in bed having trouble sleeping, there is nothing like a good book to keep you company. If you are a science fiction fanatic who has seen all the Star Wars movies, there is a sci-fi section in the library just waiting to be explored. And if Lord of the Rings is more your thing, the book comes in a 3in1 package. Literature does more than just expose one to beautiful stories (and Mills and Boons is NOT literature). It exposes us to diction and sentence structure while stimulating the imagination. Healthy imaginations can visualise and articulate their dreams, and knowledge can make dreams possible. As for our elders, you have to admit: they do tell the most interesting stories. And with all the crazy hustle and bustle of today, how lovely it is to just sit back and listen to iintsomi (bedtime stories) and wonderful tales of times that have long passed. To have first-hand access to this knowledge will one day be the equivalent of actually watching the Khoisan paint the walls of the Cango caves, and that is probably one of the greatest blessings being raised by a community can ever give to a child.